Establishing Ground Rules for Issue Escalation


Quick Summary
Screenshot This worksheet guides the project manager, team members, and project sponsor through a matter-of-fact discussion establishing ground rules for communicating emerging project issues. Establishing ground rules early in the project can help reduce fear of escalating critical issues later in the project when tensions are higher.


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What this is

This worksheet guides your team through the important step of setting ground rules for initial communication of issues with your sponsor and team members. Ideally, this should be done very early in the project as team interactions get underway. The worksheet items help establish expectations around what types of issues you will bring to the sponsor, how quickly you will raise them and after what team steps have been taken; and how you will communicate them. Discussion around these issues will help set expectations as to what help the sponsor will need to provide. The list includes items such as agreement on how missed milestones or resource issues will be escalated if they threaten a project goal.

The file also includes guidelines for using the checklists with both the sponsor and the teamÑincluding agreeing with the team up front on what items you will bring to sponsor attention, and vice versa.


Why it's useful

Fear of political repercussions or "being a tattletale" can keep team members from raising sensitive issues later in a project, especially issues that could come across as criticizing particular people or groups. Many a milestone has been missed because a particular functional group had resource constraints, and the team member(s) assigned to a project fell behind. Project managers may be reluctant to inform an executive-level sponsor that a particular group or a specific person is blowing the goals. A PM might anticipate displeasure from functional managers and losing additional resources as a result, or being perceived as whining to the executive if they can't resolve the issue on their own.

Instead of risking political minefields (real or imagined), everyone can discuss and agree on ground rules up front, before anything goes wrong and anyone gets stressed or emotional. The sponsor will know that if X happens, the project manager will speak up regardless of who is involved. The team knows exactly what the PM will take to the sponsor, regardless of who is involved. This depersonalizes issues ahead of time, and communicating bad news to the project sponsor becomes less anxiety-ridden, and is simply a matter-of-fact and expected step.

Holding these discussions early in the project is also useful for communicating the importance of commitments to the project by team members and functional groups, and expected attitudes and behaviors when bad things do happen. In companies where the executive sponsor role is new or new executives are filling the role, these discussions also set expectations about the very real help a sponsor should be prepared to provide.


How to use it

  1. As early as possible in the project, go over the worksheet with the team to set expectations. Once that is done, use the worksheet to hold similar discussions with the sponsor (again, as soon as possible).
  2. Convey to the team and sponsor that you're initiating these discussions early in order to set up proactive, non-threatening communication for the issues that inevitably impact any project.
  3. When issues arise during the project, refer to the previously established worksheet and ground rules to remind everyone how you agreed to handle escalations. Use the earlier matter-of-fact escalation agreements to reduce any fears or negative reactions about taking issues to the sponsor.

Additional step-by-step use tips are included with the worksheet.


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